Blockbuster report: Fox executives and top anchor Bret Baier tried to subvert decision desk election calls in 2020
Top Fox News executives interfered with the election projections of the network’s vaunted “decision desk” due to blowback from then-President Donald Trump, according to a new book. The reports — and the actions Fox took with regard to its decision desk following the 2020 election — demolish the network’s argument that its “news side” is a credible journalistic operation walled off from the “opinion side’s” Republican Party propaganda machine.
In The Divider: Trump in the White House, 2017-2021, Peter Baker and Susan Glasser report that while Fox’s decision desk had been comfortable with its election night call that Joe Biden had won Arizona, “Fox executives were freaking out” that week as the network came “under tremendous pressure from Trump and his allies.” Fox’s call made it more difficult for Trump to subvert the election after declaring victory on election night, and he responded by successfully encouraging Fox viewers to switch to its competitors.
Jay Wallace, Fox’s president and executive editor, took a direct action overriding the decision desk in hopes of avoiding further criticism from Trump supporters on the Friday after election day, according to Baker and Glasser.
Wallace “overruled the Decision Desk team including Bill Sammon, Arnon Miskin, and Chris Stirewalt, refusing to let them call Nevada for Biden even after other networks did, a level of interference that had been unheard of in past elections,” they write. “The reason had little to do with Nevada. Because of the Arizona projection, calling Nevada would give Biden enough electoral votes for victory. Wallace did not want Fox to be the first to call the election and declare Biden president-elect.”
Wallace’s act followed two other proposals from senior Fox employees to interfere with the decision desk for Trump’s benefit, according to the book.
First, “at 8:30 the morning after the election, Suzanne Scott, the chief executive officer, even suggested that Fox should not call any more states until they were officially certified,” they reported. As Baker and Glasser noted, “official state certifications typically took days or even weeks and no network had ever waited until then before telling their viewers who had won.”
“A couple other top executives backed up Scott,” while Sammon, the Washington managing editor who directed the decision desk, advised against the move, according to the book. (That Sammon, who slanted Fox’s reporting to the right and bragged about falsely portraying Barack Obama as a socialist during the 2008 election, was the voice of reason here shows how far the network had gone.)
But two days later, they report that Fox chief political anchor Bret Baier sent Wallace an email arguing that Fox should reverse its Arizona call and instead project that Trump had won the state — even though he trailed at the time by more than 10,000 votes.
“The Trump campaign was really pissed,” he wrote in an email to Jay Wallace, the president and executive editor at Fox. “This situation is getting uncomfortable. Really uncomfortable. I keep having to defend this on air.” He accused the Decision Desk of “holding on for pride” and added: “It’s hurting us. The sooner we pull it—even if it gives us major egg [on our faces]—and we put it back in his column the better we are in my opinion.
Fox executives sell ads by touting the purported firewall between the network’s right-wing “opinion side” and its respectable “news side.” But here we have the network’s top “news side” anchor imploring the head of “news side” programming to make the “news side” decision desk fraudulently award a state to Trump because his campaign was demanding it. That says more about Fox’s role as GOP propaganda than any “opinion side” monologue. (In a statement, Baier denied writing that the Trump campaign “was really pissed,” claiming that the quote was “from an external email that I referenced,” but complained only of the “context” of the remainder of the quotes.)
Wallace didn’t follow through on Baier’s proposal, but according to Baker and Glasser he blocked the decision desk’s Nevada call the following day. The day after that, Fox saw the writing on the wall and followed CNN, ABC, CBS, and The Associated Press in declaring that Biden had won the election.
But that wasn’t the end of it. The network’s brass subsequently established an incentive structure that would dissuade similar “news side” threats to Fox’s bottom line.
Baker and Glasser report that Sammon and Stirewalt were then “summarily fired,” with the announcement delayed until January and described as a “retirement” and part of a “restructuring,” respectively.
Over the months that followed, “opinion side” hosts Greg Gutfeld and Jesse Watters, who had both questioned the network’s Arizona call, were given their own weeknight shows. They each took over time slots that had previously been occupied by “news side” programs. Other prominent election deniers were also promoted and given increased prominence at the network.
Everyone who works at Fox now knows that if they help Republicans try to steal an election, they’ll be richly rewarded. If they try to interfere with that effort by accurately stating that the Democrats won, the network’s top executives may overrule them and they will find themselves looking for a new job.
Fox’s decision desk is now just another piece of the right’s election subversion machine — one its executives can deploy at will — and its projections should be treated as such. Any future Fox election calls that diverge from other networks to the benefit of the GOP should be treated with extreme skepticism.